Former Vice President Joe Biden presents George W. Bush and Laura Bush the 2018 Liberty Medal at The National Constitution Center on November 11, 2018 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by William Thomas Cain/Getty Images)

The Year in “Civility”: The 6 Worst Appeals to Norms and Good Manners of 2018

As the Right went on the offensive, these Democrats called for appeasement.

BY Marco Cartolano and Sarah Lazare

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Of course, there is no compromising with the far right, and in today’s climate, “civility” is just another word for capitulation.

In 2018, the U.S. Right escalated its war on unions, tear gassed and mass-jailed families seeking asylum at the southern border, confirmed an accused rapist to the Supreme Court and advanced a plan to dramatically erode the rights of transgender people. The Republican Party also rallied behind a president who threatened to annihilate the Korean peninsula with nuclear weapons, called Haiti, El Salvador and African nations “shithole countries,” and said he doesn’t “believe” an alarming new climate report compiled by his own administration.

This political landscape demands fierce opposition from the Left, but, predictably, establishment Democrats are delivering the opposite: broad denunciations of the lack of good manners and calls for a return to a more friendly and amicable order. Under this framework of “civility,” the enemy becomes immoderation and lack of restraint, rather than the Trump administration’s politics of racism and death. Democrats’ search for common ground pushes the entire political spectrum to the right, so that war criminals like George W. Bush and John McCain are cast as the reasonable center—while outraged protesters are deemed out of bounds.

Of course, there is no compromising with the far right, and in today’s climate, “civility” is just another word for capitulation. In that spirit, here are the six worst “civility” stunts from 2018.

1. Michelle Obama and George W. Bush

Michelle Obama and George W. Bush received fawning media coverage in early September when the former president passed a cough drop to the former first lady during the funeral of Sen. John McCain. Countless articles were written about the “sweet moment,” which included profiles of a friendship that USA Today called “BFF Goals.” When asked about the cough drop exchange, Obama described Bush as a “wonderful man.” The gesture was such a hit that Bush reenacted it at his father’s funeral in early December, to similar media fanfare.  

The stunts—now referred to as a “tradition”—played into the rehabilitated image of George W. Bush as America’s adorable and quirky grandfather. The friendly media coverage, of course, omitted any mention of the 1 million Iraqis who were killed as a result of Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq.

2. Beto O’Rourke

During Beto O’Rourke’s unsuccessful campaign to unseat Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, he had the distinction of receiving an award—alongside Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas)—for “civility.”

In July, the duo won the Allegheny College Prize for Civility in Public Life for live streaming the 1,600-mile road trip they took together from Texas to Washington, D.C. in March 2017 after the two were stranded by flight delays and cancellations. The committee praised O’Rourke and Hurd for their “collegial discussions on the divisive issues of the day,” with the Houston Chronicle gushing about the pair’s “unlikely ‘bromance.’”

This “bromance” helped re-elect Hurd, who voted to cut taxes for the wealthiest Americans, supported the Keystone XL Pipeline and recently voted to block a House effort to end the devastating war on Yemen. O’Rourke, who has attracted the attention of former Obama staffers as a potential presidential candidate, publicly refused to lend his star power to support Hurd’s opponent, Democrat Gina Ortiz Jones. In November, Ortiz Jones lost that race by roughly 1,000 votes.

3. Joe Biden

Former Vice President Joe Biden spent much of 2018 setting up a potential run for president, and so far has positioned himself as the vanguard of personal civility. This posturing reached its zenith on Veteran’s Day 2018 when Biden presented former president George W. Bush and former first lady Laura Bush with the National Constitution Center’s “Liberty Medal” for their “commitment to veterans.”

Biden praised “the incredible work” that Bush did for veterans, making no mention of the fact that the former president is responsible for placing veterans in harm’s way in the first place—resulting in the deaths of thousands of U.S. troops, and leaving countless more wounded and psychologically scarred. This is not to mention the people living in the countries Bush invaded: While death totals are difficult to calculate, one report found that, by 2015, the War on Terror had killed at least 1.3 million people in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Thankfully, anti-war veterans with the group About Face: Veterans Against the War took notice and protested the event. Chants of “No awards for endless wars!” could be heard in the background as the ceremony took place. “These wars are hurting every single one of us except for the politicians and corporations that profit,” said one veteran, shouting through a bullhorn.

4. Joe Manchin

In February, Sen. Joe Manchin (D- W. Va.) tried to establish bipartisan decorum in the Senate by issuing a “civility pledge” in which senators promised not to campaign against their colleagues.

Manchin, the most conservative Democratic senator, argued in favor of making donating to campaigns opposing sitting senators a violation of Senate ethics. “I don't see anybody in public service that's willing to put their name on the ballot as my enemy,” he said. “If you're willing to serve, then I'm your comrade. I'm willing to work with you.”

Manchin extended this amicable spirit to the most white nationalist wing of the Trump administration, breaking with Democrats to vote in career racist Jeff Sessions for attorney general.

Yet, he had harsh words for his congressional colleagues who refused to stand during Trump’s State of the Union address in 2018—in the aftermath of Trump’s racist reference to Haiti, El Salvador and African nations as “shithole countries.” Manchin told Fox & Friends, “That’s the way I was raised in West Virginia. We have respect. There is some civility still yet. There should be civility in this place.”

5. Cory Booker

On a snowy March day in Washington, D.C., several media outlets published cheerful articles about a snowball fight between New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake.

“The day after a snowstorm shut down most of Washington, D.C., the two senators decided to get their Alexander Hamilton-Aaron Burr on,” USA Today playfully quipped. Both politicians gleefully tweeted about the match, with Cory Booker winning P.R. points with a little self-deprecating humor: “I should have known this was a setup… lost this morning's snowball duel to a guy named Flake from Snowflake, Arizona!”

Critics were quick to point out that the fight played into Jeff Flake’s posturing as a reasonable Republican in the Trump era while voting for the president’s far-right policy agenda 81 percent of the time. Flake backed the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court and played a critical role in passing the GOP tax bill—by selling out DACA recipients.

6. Nancy Pelosi

Soon after Democrats won a majority of seats in the House of Representatives in the November midterms, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said she will try to find “common ground” with the Trump administration when she becomes Speaker of the House, referencing her ability to collaborate with George W. Bush.

“I worked very productively with President Bush when we had the majority and he had the presidency,” she said in reference to her first stint as House speaker in 2007. Unfortunately, this “productive” relationship enabled Bush to maintain his bloated budget for the Iraq War, send more troops to Afghanistan and dodge consequences for post-9/11 torture.

This is not the only civility stunt Pelosi pulled in 2018. In June, the Democratic leader publicly rebuked Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) for calling for direct action to stop Trump administration officials from separating and jailing immigrant families at the border. By appealing to an idyllic—and fictional—past, Pelosi’s condemnation encapsulated how civility politics echoes the slogans of Trump. “In the crucial months ahead,” she said, “we must strive to make America beautiful again.”


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Marco Cartolano is an editorial intern at In These Times.

Sarah Lazare is web editor at In These Times. She comes from a background in independent journalism for publications including The Intercept, The Nation, and Tom Dispatch. She tweets at @sarahlazare.

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